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February 7, 2013

The State Worker: Basic numbers go missing in state bureaucracy

Budget politics and procedures aside, sometimes the most basic number queries stymie the state.

You would think that a multibillion-dollar enterprise could do the basic stuff, like track how many employees answer to the boss or where its money goes.

Then again, we're talking about state government.

As The Bee's Kevin Yamamura reported this week, departments for years have played fiscal "hide the ball" when reporting their finances for budget purposes, hoping to dodge tough spending questions or cuts.

Budget politics and procedures aside, sometimes the most basic number queries stymie the state:

In 2009, this column asked then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration how many state employees answered to him. It seemed an obvious question, since the governor had imposed furloughs on most state workers under his authority. A personnel department team took several days to figure it out.

Last year, a top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation official took a legislative tongue-lashing after the agency twice missed spending report deadlines. The lawmakers were ticked because they gave Corrections extra money to cover its blown budget, but with financial reporting strings attached.

The official blamed everything from department downsizing to staff vacancies in his unit.

A few months later, it issued the report. This year, it delivered numbers on time, thanks to internal reorganization and a better budget climate.

Recent reports that some salaried state workers hold second jobs in their departments raised several questions: How many employees have two titles? How much has the state paid them? How do departments make sure the duties and pay don't overlap?

We still don't know, three weeks later. The state has provided a few monthly snapshots of departments and jobs involved, but no actual pay info while the administration sorts details.

Run a competitive business like that and you're inviting disaster.

Government is different, however. It can't go out of business. It has taxing power. It has to entertain debate and aim for transparency.

"Our public finance system isn't designed to track what you'd think are basic business questions," said Mike Shires, a Pepperdine public budgets expert. "It's about accountability, not efficiency."

California's state technology knits together inflexible, dissimilar data systems. Some, like the payroll program, were launched during the Vietnam War. In the age of instant online information, those creaky programs run at a glacial pace.

"The systems don't communicate with each other like you think they would," said Tracy Gordon, a Brookings Institution economics fellow. That makes customized and accurate big-picture numbers difficult.

If you're a state worker, you're in a system that has trouble accounting for you. If you're a taxpayer – and that includes state workers – you have to wonder how the state makes big-money governing decisions while flying blind.

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